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Seeing a Future

Such feelings are typical, says Nancy H. Ross, director of the city’s Juvenile Justice Services. Whatever their situation, children tend to “construe their reality as normal.” That, in turn, can affect their outlook on life.

When Morton was going through adolescence in the early ’90s, the outlook was grim. His hometown was going down a dark path, about to become one of the deadliest cities in the country, logging a record 160 homicides in 1994. He was growing up in an area that’s home to half the city’s public housing.

There were daily reminders for Morton, too, that not much was expected — but much seemed predestined. Like when he was 10, and on his way out of the corner store, and a suspicious shop owner wouldn’t let him leave.

“Come here for a second,” the man called out.

“For what?” Morton asked.

“Come here, let me check you.”

Morton did steal something, just once, but it was still disheartening to be stopped.

At 21 and on a college campus, things are different. Morton’s normal has changed. He pulled himself up, and he now thinks of the people he can help and the places he can go. He sees a future because he found hope. Still, it’s easy for him to think: “It’s just a miracle, though.”

“People in the neighborhood didn’t think I was going to be anything,” he says.

But his grandmother did.

Morton lived with his older brother, Andrew, and his parents, but it was his grandmother who truly raised him, he says. “My grandmother was like my mama and my daddy,” he says.

They were tight. She steered him in the right direction, and he was open to it. He saw things at home and on the street that he figured weren’t good for him to see, stuff he doesn’t like talking about now, he says: “There are some things that you can say, and some things that you can’t say.”

He recalls walking to school and coming back home, playing lots of basketball in local tournaments like Hoop It Up and the Triple Crown. At age 8, he started attending the neighborhood’s Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club. Even though “they conned us with a little food,” he says, he kept coming back because he wanted to. There he met Harold Harris, the director of athletics, along with other mentors, and had a place to relax, play and hang out with other young people.

“They kept me off the streets,” Morton says, “kept me out of trouble.”

Harris knows it takes more than a program, though. “Eventually,” he says, “the person has to find it within themselves in deciding what direction he wants to take in life — regardless of what the circumstances are.” The young black male has to be willing to open up and be receptive to guidance. “Because after you leave here,” Harris says, “you still have to go out there on the street.”

When Morton got to Armstrong High School, he continued playing basketball. By his senior year in 2000, the point guard was showing talent. His friend Chez encouraged him to apply to college — and maybe even get a basketball scholarship.

It had been a difficult year for Morton. His father had died. So had his maternal grandma, his “backbone.” His brother sold the house where they were living with his mom. They moved in with his late father’s mother in Fulton Hill.

College became something he needed to do, wanted to do, he says. “I knew my grandma was gone, and we were going to struggle from that day on.”

The basketball scholarship didn’t work out, but he applied for financial aid, received it, and was accepted to Virginia State University in Petersburg.

When the summer drew to an end in 2000, he prepared for moving day. Early in the morning, his brother, his friend Chez and Rodney Cook — his Armstrong math teacher, who had a truck — pitched in to help. He wasn’t nervous, but he recalls the excitement of the day: “Packing all that stuff, it was a wreck — and taking pictures.”

When the foursome arrived on campus, they carried Morton’s things to his room. Mr. Cook offered advice. “Have a ball,” he told Morton, and his helpers left. Alone, with his first semester in front of him, Morton walked around campus. Next to getting baptized, he says, it was the greatest moment of his life.

Three years later, Morton is an accounting major, having switched from business management. (“I like a challenge,” he says.) One summer during school, he took on an accounting job with the Salvation Army headquarters in Richmond. He joined the National Association of Black Accountants and took in its conference in Atlanta where the “Big 4” firms had sent representatives.

After winter break, Morton will return to school this month. He has two more semesters to graduate. But earlier in the year, he says he felt doubts. “This year I felt like I was going to give up,” he says. He was in class, trying to master an especially tough topic, and it struck him — “the pressure that I’ve got to make it,” he says. “I know that I need a 3.0 … to compete for jobs and also to apply for university scholarships.”

He stood in front of the building for “about 10 seconds,” he says, and asked God to send him a message. He needed reassurance, support, motivation. He thought about his family and how they needed him, he says. “Right now, I just want to be the one to bring us back up — the right way.”

After a while, the message came, he says: “You’ve come too far to give up now.” — Jason Roop


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